Pandemic Panettone

Traditionally seasoned turkey with canned cranberry, stuffing and mashed potatoes rouses in me wonderful childhood memories of Christmases spent north of Toronto, with my aunt and uncle, in a snow-draped landscape – towering pines everywhere, a real fire burning day and night, chocolate initials in our stockings. Magic.

But my husband grew up elsewhere and he longed for other things. I will never forget the expression in his eyes the first time I served, on Christmas Eve, a chicken seasoned with globs of carefully blended spices. Our second Christmas together. Even our landlady, whose basement we rented, praised my Peruvian-spiced bird. Since then chocolate caliente (hot chocolate made by boiling cinnamon, cloves and solid chocolate in thick milk) and panettone have become part of our own holiday traditions.

But this year none of the shops I use (for delivery and curbside pick-up) stock this traditional treat. And with rising numbers and an underlying health condition, I’m hesitant about non-essential outings.

This year will be different for all of us, I’m sure. I’m tempted to think of all the things we won’t be able to do, the people we can’t be with, the traditions we won’t be observing. But instead, why not embrace the differences? This is not a year for insisting that things unfold in a traditional way. This is a time to try something new. I’m planning an outdoor, fire-pit visit with my aunt, the only extended family living nearby. And panettone? Well – why not bake one?

I thought I’d better give it a dry run, right away! Prepping the dough was no problem. I warmed the eggs so they wouldn’t chill my active yeast, kept the rising dough free from drafts, soaked the raisins in sweet sherry. And then realized I had no special pan for baking something that’s supposed to come out looking like a muffin on steroids. So I improvised with parchment paper and string.

The result was not a thing of beauty, as you can see from the photos. And it tasted nothing like panettone. Too dense. Not sweet enough. Something essential was missing. But still a lovely, nutrient-dense bread (five eggs in the one loaf!)

I may still try to get my hands on a factory-baked panettone, but if not, maybe we’ll do something different this year. Wildly different. Vegan chocolate pie. Or orange-chocolate baklava. Homemade Besos de Moza. Who knows?

What traditions are you keeping this year? Are there new things you plan to try? I’d love to hear about it!

An Unexpected Kindness

As a child I found squash odious. Consequently, as an adult I never cooked it.

Then, I discovered the joy of a simple, homemade butternut squash soup: fry an apple and onions in a generous amount of curry before adding broth and squash and you have the makings of a delicious meal.

Last year a friend shared a few squashes with us. I’d relaxed my I hate squash stance due to the undeniable delights of the butternut variety, but that was as far as I’d taken it.

Buttercup squash, it turns out, is creamy, nutty and versatile.

Newly convinced me that this was something I should grow in my garden, this past summer I felt a surge of pride at the thick, green health of my buttercup squash plants… until a groundhog took up residency under our shed, making my garden his personal daily buffet. He devastated everything, especially the squash.

Still, the regenerative power of nature is astonishing. We relocated the groundhog and, with some advice from our squash-growing friend, were able to harvest four or five small buttercup squashes to cook and enjoy. They were delicious. And then they were gone. I thought my fun with fall squash was over.

Until yesterday.

Our lovely, hobby-farming friend dropped by with a gift: produce from her garden. So many squashes, in fact, that I felt like a giddy school girl looking at the pile!

An unexpected kindness.

When God Doesn’t Fix It

I’ve lived with chronic illness for more than ten years now, and during that time have come to realize that for many of us – not just for me – life is complicated.

It seemed to me, when I first got sick, that the loss and pain caused by my condition isolated me from others – my life was now odd, and so was I. But as I reach out to find resources for myself and others who struggle with sickness or ongoing conditions, I realize that I am not alone. You are not alone. There are more of us than you might think. Many people battle illness, or live with loved ones who do.

Recently, I came across Laura Story’s book When God Doesn’t Fix It. Just after getting married, the author’s new husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor, launching them on a lifelong road of managing loss and broken dreams, asking hard questions, and learning to surrender.

As I read Laura’s story, I was struck by her honesty and I noticed that the things she wrestled to release are things many of us hang on to tightly – personal desires relating to work, finances, marriage, children, and health.

Anyone who has ever wondered why God allows pain to touch us or how to move from a place of resentful questioning to one of surrender, trust and gratitude, will appreciate the insights Laura shares in this book.

Blessings by Laura Story

Reflections

A world in quarantine changed us all, I think, in big and small ways. We’ve heard about wild life returning, the clearing of the skies, people singing on balconies.

Personally, I find it hard to articulate the subtle changes I sense in myself after months of forced seclusion. Stopping for a prolonged period was, at times, boring, frustrating, and lonely.

But quiet fostered reflection, leading to a better understanding of myself and my loved ones. When I lost my job and stopped going to church services, when special occasions were celebrated at home and visits to stores, malls, banks and even gas stations stopped… well… this cessation caused new clarity of mind, a side effect of silence and stillness.

What is life is really about?

Who am I and who do I want to be?

What do I value?

I found that faith in an unchanging God anchors my identity and gives me hope.

I realized I’ve been shy about sharing myself with others, and maybe I’d like to change this.

Returning to work has been as jarring as being laid off; the freedom to focus solely on family, home and hobbies for months eased me into a gentle way of living that went unnoticed and unappreciated until it was gone.

The challenge, now, is finding balance. How will life look and feel if, in this slight re-acceleration, I hang on to lessons learned, allowing some of the peace I’ve been marinating in for months to influence me as I strive to do a good job in the workplace while giving the best of myself to those I love the most?

The future still seems unnervingly uncertain in a hundred different ways, just as it did months ago, when all this began. But if I’m going to hang on to just one lesson it’s that taking life one day at a time and living moment to moment reduces anxiety. I’m going to let go of tomorrow’s unknowns for the certainty and simplicity of now.

Faith isn’t the ability to believe long and far into the misty future. It’s simply taking God at His Word and taking the next step.

Joni Eareckson Tada

Better Than Ice Cream

Subtle flavour and gentle sweetness are sensory pleasures I discovered later in life.

My husband and I stumbled, together, across an obscure Japanese bakery in Markham, years ago, and the lightness of a strawberry shortcake we found there is with us still.

Later, I tried, for the first time, an array of Peruvian treats: alfajores, turron, picarones, arroz con leche…. Either Peruvians know the trick of creating the perfect dessert, or eating something sumptuous with someone you adore colours the experience, making the most prosaic of tastes special.

Leche asada is as common in Peru as ice cream is here. Literally translated it means baked milk, and in attempts to make it I once inadvertently left out the milk and, more recently, used so many eggs that my leche asada came out evocative of a sweet quiche.

Last night’s attempt wasn’t bad, but I think I can do better. Next time fewer eggs!

A recipe for those who want to try: https://www.limaeasy.com/peruvian-food-guide/typical-desserts/leche-asada

Photo credit: My daughter – thank you!

Attracting Bees

Four years ago I became interested in bees and pollinator plants. A number of books about Colony collapse disorder caught my eye and, the way I saw it, with more bees in my backyard I could help save a species essential to our food supply and have more tomatoes and zucchinis to harvest. I looked into keeping hives, but this seemed too involved for me; in the end I settled on creating a series of pollinator gardens that ran across most of the property behind our house.

I was dubious, though, about claims that certain plants attract bees.

I’m not anymore.

This story has a sad end, but first let me share the happy beginning with you…

My daughter dug up grass and my husband laid hardscape edging, and within two years I was sharing a beautiful landscape with hundreds of tiny visitors. In the photos below you can see many plants that successfully attracted LOTS of bees.

Phlox, daffodils and forget-me-nots first, followed by daisies and creeping thyme, and, finally, a gorgeous display of late summer black-eyed susans and Russian sage.
Tulips and chives in the early spring, followed by daisies, irises, salvia, purple coneflower and black-eyed susans.

I’d love to end this story here, but, sadly, it was after attracting hundreds of bees to my backyard that I got my first sting, an unforgettable incident involving a traumatic trip to the hospital and the discovery that I have a life-threatening allergy to bee stings.

Determined nonetheless, I purchased a bee keeper suit and used it for heavy gardening. It was hot, and sapped a lot of the pleasure from this hobby, which is why I thought I might get away with a quick bush-trim without it one morning. This resulted in my second sting and another memorable experience of anaphylactic shock.

A few days ago I got my third sting while taking a quick peek at my carrots.

Before all these pollinator plants went in, it was possible for me to work a vegetable garden out back, play croquet in the grass and eat on the patio without issues. Now, three years later, the bee population is such that it’s not really safe for me to be out back without protection. Ever.

So… the pollinator plants must go. Sad but true. Next spring we will share these plants with neighbours and friends and go for an entirely new look, with a different imperative: make this backyard unappealing to bees.

The good news is, pollinator plants DO attract pollinators and if those who aren’t allergic transform turf into meadow and annual beds into naturalized, pollinator-friendly gardens, we can create, across the country, a landscape of miniature havens that will help to save the bees.

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